I saw two of my former students last week; one I taught at Cambridge, the other at Oxford. One of them has spent the better part of the last three years on her majesty's service in southern Iraq. The other is based in Jerusalem, working to broker an enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Basra and Gaza are certainly not the places I expected them to end up.
It is not, however, the fact that they are Oxbridge products or, indeed, the fact that they are both women that gives me hope for the future of the Middle East. It is the fact that they are historians.
After all, the forces bedeviling the Middle East today are fundamentally the same ones that tore Europe apart in the last century.
Europe a century ago was the continent through which the world's biggest geopolitical fault lines ran. Like the Middle East today, it had the allure of natural resources (coal and iron, not oil). Like the Middle East today, it had a rapidly growing population that was deeply divided along ethnic lines (though the majority were Christians, not Muslims). And like the Middle East today, it was where the tectonic plates of empire met.
Many glib commentators like to blame all the problems of the Middle East today on British and French imperial maneuvers to fashion dependencies out of the lost provinces of the Ottoman Empire as if malicious European diplomats somehow invented the ancient fissures between Shiites and Sunnis, or willfully encouraged Jewish settlers to colonize Palestine.
In truth, the post-1918 order was remarkably successful in preventing Arab nationalism from becoming a source of support for the Axis powers during World War II.
The subsequent American dominance of the region (from the mid-1940s on) was based on an unlikely combination of special relationships with Wahhabism (Saudi Arabia) and Zionism (Israel). Although it managed to check Soviet ambitions in the region, the U.S. struggled to keep the peace.
After the Iranian revolution, the U.S. played the balance-of-power game, treating Saddam Hussein as a useful counterweight. But dissatisfaction with this murky strategy prompted the so-called neoconservatives to devise a radical new strategy. The region could be stabilized (and the security of Israel enhanced) by a forcible democratic revolution, beginning in Iraq.
It was from the outset a strategy based more on political science than on history. The "democratic peace" theory states that two democracies are always and everywhere less likely to go to war with one another than two dictatorships, or a democracy and a dictatorship. The neocons inferred from this that a more democratic Middle East would be a more peaceful Middle East.
Thursday's election in Iraq is being interpreted in Washington as evidence that the neocon approach may yet work. Certainly, the high turnouts recorded especially in Sunni areas are the nicest Christmas present a beleaguered President Bush could have wished for.
And recent polls are reassuring as well (Harold Pinter, please note): 80% of people in the mainly Kurdish provinces and 58% in the mainly Shiite provinces think the U.S. was "right to invade Iraq"; 70% of all Iraqis approve of the new constitution. Yes, two-thirds of Iraqis want the American troops to go home. But most Americans feel the same way.
Yet history offers a salutary warning. Even a complete success in Iraq would leave an awful lot of non-democracies right next door, notably Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is now the principal menace to stability in the region. In any case, what the democratic peace theory doesn't tell you is the number of countries that have plunged into civil war after democratization.
Call this scenario the "win-lose" outcome. The U.S. wins in the sense that Iraq has successfully held two elections and a referendum. But the U.S. loses because democracy lays bare the deep differences between Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis.
You end up not with a democratic peace but with a democratic war as the Kurds take up arms to fight for independence and the Sunnis do likewise to reassert their traditional dominance.
Just look again at the numbers. In the Sunni areas, just 16% think the U.S. was right to invade. The Sunnis account for about 20% of Iraq's population. And a recent nationwide poll suggests that their fellow Iraqis expect them to receive only 5% or 10% of the country's oil revenues. It is not hard to see what issue will be No. 1 when the new parliament meets.
Iraq could easily go the way of Lebanon in the late 1970s, only bigger and bloodier. And such a war could easily escalate into a regional conflict.
If the history of 20th century Europe is anything to go by, all the ingredients are now in place for the biggest conflagration in Middle Eastern history. The only good news is that the first thing to go up in smoke will be the theory of a democratic peace.